CHAPTER XXVII. THE GULF OF CALIFORNIA

That the head of the Gulf of California has a big tide is well known. Choked in a narrowing cone, the waters rise higher and higher as they come to the apex, reaching twenty-five feet or over in a high tide. This causes a tidal bore to roll up the Colorado, and from all reports it was something to be avoided. The earliest Spanish explorers told some wonderful tales of being caught in this bore and of nearly losing their little sailing vessels.

This was my first experience with river tides. It was somewhat of a disappointment to me that I could not arrange to be here at a high tide, for we had come at the first quarter of the moon. Out on the open sea one can usually make some headway by rowing against the ebb or flow of the tide: here on the Colorado, where it flowed upstream at a rate of from five to eight miles an hour, it was different. When we reached the head of the tide, it was going out. Unfortunately for us the day was gone when the current began to run strong. It hardly seemed advisable to travel with it after dark. We might pass the ranch, or be carried against a rock-bound coast, or find difficulty in landing and be overwhelmed by the tidal bore. So when darkness fell we camped pulling our boat out in a little slough to prevent it from being carried away. Evidently we were too near the headwaters for a tidal bore, for at eleven P.M. the waters turned and came back as quietly as they ran out.

We launched our boat before the break of day, and for four hours we travelled on a good current. The channel now had widened to a half-mile, with straight earthy banks, about fifteen feet high. Still there was no sign of a ranch, and it began to look to us as if there was little likelihood of finding any.

The land was nearly level and except for a few raised hummocks on which grew some scattered trees, it was quite bare. This was not only because it did not get the life-giving water from the north, but because at times it was submerged under the saline waters from the south. Near the shores of the river, and extending back for fifty feet, was a matted, rank growth of grass; beyond that the earth was bare, baked and cracked by the burning sun. This grass, we found, was a favorite resort of rattlesnakes. We killed two of them, a large one and a vicious little flat-headed sidewinder.

All this land was the south rim of the silt dam, which extended from the line of cliffs or mesa on the east to the mountains on the west. The other rim, a hundred feet higher, lay at least fifty miles to the north. Here was the resting-place of a small portion of the sediment carved away by the Colorado's floods. How deep it is piled and how far it extends out under the waters of the Gulf would be hard to say.

We felt sure that we would get to the Gulf with this tide, but when the time came for it to turn we were still many miles away. There was nothing to do but to camp out on this sun-baked plain. We stopped a little after 9.30 A.M. Now that we were nearing the Gulf we were sure there would be a tidal bore. As we breakfasted a slight rushing sound was heard, and what appeared to be a ripple of broken water or small breaker came up the stream and passed on. This was a disappointment. With high water on the river and with a low tide this was all the tidal bore we would see.

In four hours the water rose fourteen feet, then for two hours the rise was slower. Within three feet of the level it came. The opposite side, rounded at the edges, looked like a thread on top of the water, tapered to a single silken strand and looking toward the Gulf, merged into the water. To all appearances it was a placid lake spread from mountain to mesa.

Our smaller canteen was still filled with the fresh water secured the evening before. The other had been emptied and was filled again before the return of the tide, but considerable taste of the salt remained. What we did now must be done with caution. So far we had not seen the ranch. We were in doubt whether it was somewhere out on the coast or back on one of the sloughs passed the evening before. We had heard of large sail-boats being hauled from Yuma and launched by the ranch. This would seem to indicate that it was somewhere on the Gulf. We had provisions sufficient for one day, one canteen of fresh water, and another so mixed with the salt water that we would not use it except as a last resort.

A little after 3.30 P.M. the tide changed; we launched our boat and went out with the flood. As we neared the mouth of the stream we found that the inrush and outrush of water had torn the banks. Here the river spread in a circular pool several miles across. It seemed almost as if the waters ran clear to the line of yellow cliffs and to the hazy mountain range. Then the shores closed in again just before the current divided quite evenly on either side of a section of the barren plain named Montague Island. We took the channel to the east.

Our last hope of finding the ranch was in a dried-out river channel, overgrown with trees. But although we looked carefully as we passed, there was no sign of a trail or of human life. Some egrets preened their silken feathers on the bank; sand-hill cranes and two coyotes, fat as hogs and dragging tails weighted with mud, feasted on the lively hermit-crabs, which they extracted from their holes - and that was all.

The sun, just above the lilac-tinted mountains, hung like a great suspended ball of fire. The cloudless sky glared like a furnace. Deep purple shadows crept into the canyons slashing the mountain range. The yellow dust-waves and the mirages disappeared with the going down of the sun. Still we were carried on and on. We would go down with the tide. Now the end of the island lay opposite the line of cliffs; soon we would be in the Gulf.